"Combat Evolved." That's the iconic subtitle of the first Halo game from back in 2001, but it's also a phrase I couldn't stop thinking about when running, gunning and ground-pounding through Halo 5: Guardians.
The sci-fi shooter series' Xbox One debut (and the second main Halo title from developer 343 Industries) is the first Halo sequel to truly evolve what the game is all about. Its wealth of new game mechanics make moving and shooting feel brand-new, and lend themselves perfectly to a sprawling four-player campaign that tells a compelling story from two perspectives.
Factor in a meaty multiplayer offering that has plenty to offer both competitive and casual fans, and there's no question about it — Halo 5, while not perfect, is the best Halo yet, and is the number one reason to own an Xbox One right now.
A Tale of Two Spartans
There's a lot happening in Halo 5's sprawling, galaxy-spanning campaign, but the core plot is as follows: Longtime protagonist Master Chief, who thinks he's found a lead on his missing virtual-assistant pal Cortana, abandons the United Nations Space Command's orders to stay put, and goes off on what he thinks is a rescue mission alongside his pals in Blue Team. In response, the UNSC sends Fireteam Osiris, led by new Spartan Jameson Locke, to retrieve them.
This cat-and-mouse game spirals into something much more complex, as both parties must deal with a new breed of towering, planet-threatening AI constructs known as Guardians. As if that's not enough of a problem, the Promethean robots and their fanatic alien followers in the Covenant are still looking to kill you.
Despite a bit of confusing sci-fi mumbo-jumbo, Halo 5 tells a satisfying man-vs.-machine story that sets a bold new course for the franchise by the time the credits roll. Its gorgeous cutscenes are well-scripted and incorporate a host of fan-favorite Halo characters, while introducing a few new ones that are too wonderful to spoil. Newcomers may enjoy the main story, but the bevy of callbacks to the larger Halo universe make it much more rewarding for longtime fans.
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Master Chief fans be warned, though: Of the game's 15 missions, a majority of them put you in control of Locke and his crew. I personally didn't mind this much — Locke holds his own as the series' new co-protagonist, and I welcomed the extra dose of personality brought by his teammates Tanaka, Vale and Buck (the latter of whom is played by the ever-charming Nathan Fillion, reprising the role from Halo 3: ODST.)
On the other hand, it feels like Halo 5 misses out on fulfilling the potential of its two-team campaign. 343 could have told a complex story that jumped between the two groups' perspectives, but instead, Chief and his Blue Team buddies feel like supporting actors. Still, the few Chief missions that are in the game manage to be some of the most memorable.
I'll say this with confidence: Halo 5 has the best gameplay of any game in the series. The franchise's foundation of tight shooting mechanics and satisfying vehicular combat is still there, but is elevated greatly by new Spartan abilities that let you thrust forward in mid-air, climb ledges and channel your inner Marshawn Lynch by shoulder-charging bad guys into oblivion.
These abilities make Halo 5's movement and combat more dynamic than ever, and each of the new moves — Thrust, Clamber, Slide, Spartan Charge and Ground Pound — work beautifully when used in tandem with one another. For example, you can jump onto a hard-to-reach platform by thrusting through the air and clambering up its ledge, or slide under enemy gunfire before charging into your opponent head-on.
And then there's the Ground Pound. This move lets you rain death from above by crashing to the ground with your fists, and is one of the most satisfying things you can do in Halo 5. I've lost count of how many short, bulbous Covenant grunts I've squished to death with a Ground Pound, and I still can't help but crack a smile every time I use it.
Just as Spartan abilities fundamentally change how you play Halo, so do the game's new squad mechanics. Every mission is tackled as a team of four, whether you're playing solo with three AI companions or online with other humans. You can command your computer-controlled teammates to grab a vehicle or focus on a specific enemy — something I found useful for turrets and boss fights — and, for the first time in series history, you can revive friends that have fallen in battle.
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I'm a big fan of this system; getting knocked out mid-battle no longer guarantees that you'll have to start all over again, and yet the game is challenging enough to keep you from getting revived constantly. A tank blast will still kill you instantly, and if all of your teammates are also downed, you're done.
Halo 5's level design embraces the new Spartan abilities to the fullest — each area is bursting with verticality, giving you plenty of ledges to climb and no shortage of open spaces to come hammering down on. You can burst through certain doors and walls with Spartan Charge, which can open up hidden areas filled with some of the many collectibles hidden in each stage.
Each level offers multiple pathways to success, including some massively enjoyable vehicular segments that let you pilot a variety of Halo's trucks, tanks and aircraft however you see fit. One personal highlight is an aerial battle against an enemy ship-monster called the Kraken, which more than lives up to its name.
Of course, it wouldn't be Halo without guns, and Halo 5's feel better than ever. The game's mix of pistols, rifles and heavy weapons from human and alien alike are mostly pulled from earlier titles, but they all control better, thanks to 343's decision to finally map aiming to the left trigger — as virtually all other modern shooters have done for years.
While Halo 5's campaign has tons of replay value, its suite of multiplayer modes is what makes the game virtually impossible for me to put down. Packing two distinct multiplayer experiences — Arena and Warzone — Halo 5 offers a staggering amount of variety for those who live for shooting other Spartans in the head.
Arena is 4-on-4 Halo multiplayer at its purest. All players start with the same gear, making dominating the map and scavenging the best weapons a big focus. Arena offers staple modes such as Slayer (team death match) and Capture the Flag, as well as the all-new Breakout, which adds a new layer of tension to Halo matches by only giving players a single life.
Halo 5's Spartan abilities translate gracefully to the competitive multiplayer experience, adding near-endless strategic potential to each match. Thrusting, sliding and ledge-grabbing open up a slew of new ways to escape enemy gunfire, and landing a Ground Pound or Spartan Charge on a real-life opponent is infinitely more satisfying than doing so on the AI.
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If Arena is about pure competition, Warzone is about pure chaos. This brand-new mode has teams of 12 duke it out on massive maps, which are often interspersed with computer-controlled enemies that want to kill both groups. Warzone does an excellent job fusing elements of Halo's campaign with its competitive multiplayer, and while strategy is still key to winning, even the most novice players can feel like they're contributing by capturing bases or taking out a few AI baddies.
Earning points during Warzone allows you to level up mid-match, with each new level opening a new tier of weapons, vehicles and power-ups that you can bring to the fight. You'll earn access to things such as shotguns and drivable ATVs early on, but score big enough, and you'll be bringing rocket launchers, tanks and airships into battle. This often results in some delightful vehicular madness by the end of a round.
There is one big thing missing from Halo 5's robust multiplayer suite, though: split-screen multiplayer. Halo games have allowed players to team up or compete on the same console since the first game on the original Xbox, but in Halo 5, it's either online or bust. 343 has explained that split-screen was nixed in order to deliver the best gameplay and graphics possible, but as someone who grew up playing Halo in the same room as family and friends, it hurts to see the feature go.
Check Yourself Before You Req Yourself
Halo 5's multiplayer modes are complemented by the new Requisitions system, which allows you to earn packs of virtual cards that unlock in-game goodies. You can buy Req packs with in-game currency you've earned or with real money, but it's no pay-to-win system. Requisitions are mostly either cosmetic items for your Spartan, or one-time use cards that let you access more weapons and vehicles in Warzone — nothing that affects the competitive Arena experience.
I personally like the Req system; previous Halo games forced you to spend hours reaching a certain multiplayer ranking in order to get the best cosmetic items, but in Halo 5, there's an opportunity to unlock an awesome piece of armor or weapon skin every time you open a pack. While some may shun the presence of microtransactions in a Halo game, you can still get Req packs without spending a dime — and as a trade-off, 343 will offer all upcoming multiplayer maps at no charge.
Sights and Sounds
Halo 5 is beautiful — I haven't nearly gotten myself killed while staring at scenery this often since I first played Destiny. While the game doesn't quite reach the jaw-dropping heights of Bungie's latest shooter, its myriad interesting enemies and towering alien structures add an incredible level of scale and personality to each planet. The game's story cutscenes are the real star of the show, as actors such as Michael Colter (Locke) and Nathan Fillion (Buck) look startlingly similar to their real-life counterparts.
It's worth noting that in order to maintain a consistent 60 frames per second, Halo 5 doesn't always run at full 1080p resolution. That explains why it doesn't look quite as sharp as other modern shooters, but considering how smoothly the action runs, it's a trade-off I'll take.
The game is also a delight to the ears, thanks to an engrossing soundtrack that assaults you with electronic noise during firefights and sweeping orchestral tunes during more somber moments. Of course, this is still a Halo game, and there are few better moments than when the iconic hymnal chants of the series' original theme song hit right at the perfect time.
I've never had as much fun playing Halo as I have with Halo 5: Guardians. The game's new combat mechanics make both solo and competitive play an absolute blast, and mark what feels like the biggest evolution yet to the long-running sci-fi shooter series. Halo 5's explosive campaign warrants multiple playthroughs, thanks to its collectibles and co-op options, and if you enjoy Halo multiplayer, it's virtually impossible to grow bored of what Arena and Warzone have to offer.
The absence of split-screen play is a painful omission from a series known for local multiplayer, and those who swear by the Master Chief might not love that newcomer Locke gets the spotlight here. But you might just forget about those flaws the first time you burst through the air and Ground-Pound a group of unsuspecting aliens — trust me.